Appeals court halts progress in major pipeline project


The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected the federal government’s approval of a natural gas pipeline project in the southeastern U.S. on Tuesday. They cite concerns about climate change in their decision.

The case concerns the Southeast Market Pipelines (SMP) Project. The SMP Project facilities, which would be located in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, include 685.5 miles of natural gas transmission pipeline and associated facilities, six new natural gas-fired compressor stations, and modifications to existing compressor stations, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

The FERC green-lighted the project in 2016, but the the Sierra Club sued them, objecting to its environmental review.

In a 2-1 ruling, the appeals court denied all of the Sierra Club’s objections, except one focused on greenhouse gas. Judge Thomas Griffith, who was nominated to the court by former President George W. Bush, was joined by Judge Judith Ann Wilson Rogers, nominated by former President Bill Clinton, in finding that the FERC didn’t properly analyze the impact burning the natural gas would have on the climate.

In his opinion, Griffith said the environmental impact statement for the project “should have either given a quantitative estimate of the downstream greenhouse emissions that will result from burning the natural gas that the pipelines will transport or explained more specifically why it could not have done so.”

He writes that greenhouse-gas emissions are “an indirect effect of authorizing this project, which FERC could reasonably foresee, and which the agency has legal authority to mitigate.”

The opinion states quantification would allow the agency to compare emissions between this and previous projects, and to compare those to total emissions from the region, or to national emissions-control goals.

“Without such comparisons, it is difficult to see how FERC could engage in ‘informed decision making’ with respect to the greenhouse-gas effects of this project, or how ‘informed public comment’ could be possible,” the appeals court wrote.

According to The Hill:

“The ruling is significant because it adds to environmentalists’ arguments that analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act — the law governing all environmental reviews of federal decisions — must consider climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.”

In their Final Environmental Impact Statement on the Southeast Market Pipelines Project, issued on Dec. 18, 2015, the FERC concluded that approval of the SMP Project would have “some adverse environmental impacts,” but they say these impacts would be reduced with the implementation of the applicants’ proposed mitigation and additional measures recommended in the agency’s final environmental impact statement.

Another Bush nominee, Judge Janice Rogers Brown dissented from the ruling. She said the FERC is not obligated to analyze some impacts, as it doesn’t have the authority to act in reducing the greenhouse-gas impact of the pipelines it approves.

The FERC now must decide to act to complete the greenhouse gas analysis.

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